Monday, December 19, 2011

Analog Games FTW

In the town where I grew up we had a really unique department store known as “The Fair”. The Fair tried very hard to be on par with other more established department stores at the time, such as Caldor, Sears and K Mart, but ended up being a lot more like the popular “factory closeouts” store Building 19 instead. The Fair always had a whole lot of second rate, sub par crap mixed in with a small amount of chic, quality new stuff, so it was a toss up as to whether you were going to leave there with a new pair of Levi's or a broken fishing pole you bought for $3.00. At any rate, whatever The Fair got in as a new shipment would be quickly bought up by the population of my little podunk town, whether it was reconditioned Sanyo “Walkman” knockoffs or really awful looking pirate Ozzy t shirts. Once you saw a good percentage of your classmates in school with cheap cassette players, cheap Air Jordan's knockoff sneakers, and/ or even cheaper quality bootleg t shirts, you knew they got them at The Fair.

The Fair often got really weird stuff you'd never find anywhere else, such as a few random Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax tour shirts (three bands I was the biggest and only fan of in my town), Vietnam war era canteens and covers, machetes, cheap hollow handled “Rambo” survival knives, and a widely revolving selection of board games and playing cards. Since thrash metal, military surplus and board games are a few of my favorite things, it wasn't uncommon of me to blow my entire allowance or paper route earnings there on a weekly basis.

One thing they had a very lucrative supply of for awhile were these small, travel sized board games with magnetic playing pieces that stuck to the metal surface of the game board. These game boards doubled as carrying cases that folded in half and held the small pieces inside. They probably only measured about six inches square when opened, and it was VERY easy to lose their miniscule pieces, but myself and a few other nerds at my school became obsessed with them. By the end of the first month of The Fair stocking these cheap games (they seemed to get two to three new ones every week), my friends and I had acquired backgammon, chess, checkers, reversie (more commonly known as “Othello”), Parcheesi and Chinese checkers. Our lunches and study breaks were soon consumed with very intense game playing, albeit with very miniscule, rather unimpressive looking game sets.

After I'd become acquainted with most of the basic board games available to us here in North America, I started to set out on the task of trying to create my own. Not necessarily my own original games per se, but my own versions of existing ones, albeit with more exciting looking boards and playing pieces. I remember making a backgammon set out of scrap plywood and glass chips that were laying around in my basement in sixth grade, and although it looked cool, I don't think anyone ever played it with me. Still, I was determined to become the game master, although the demographics of gaming were beginning to shift big time.

By the late 1980's, myself and most of the kids in my town were fully immersed in Nintendo's first large scale video game system, so my love of board and card games went on the back burner. Although I owned a Nintendo (and before that, an Atari), I pretty much sucked at video games and still do. At this time I was also dabbling a bit with Dungeons and Dragons, which my friend Sang had a bunch of books and modules for, but that quickly got boring for me as it wasn't visual enough. There's just something about moving cool looking pieces around on a cool looking board, rolling neat looking dice and looking at cool playing cards that I'm a sucker for. If you try to replace that with a computer game controller, or using my imagination for some abstract role playing game it just isn't the same (although I do admit, the dice used in D & D are pretty bad ass...)

The only holdouts my friends and I had left for actual analog games in jr. high school were Risk and a game called Shogun, which we played religiously at my friend Neil's house every weekend. These were both involved, strategy/ conquest type of games, with Shogun being essentially a Risk knockoff, dedicated to the conquest of feudal Japan. Both of these games took hours, and sometimes even days to play, and the end result was often physical violence between friends if cheating was suspected or fake alliances were formed. I can only imagine what these gaming sessions would have been like if drugs or alcohol were involved, I think you would have seen some of the biggest nerds on earth transform into completely scary, feral barbarians.

So being the true Renaissance Man that I am, lately it has become my quest to make analog gaming cool again. This serves a multitude of purposes, but a few of them are as follows.

The first is, I'm sick of all this techno narcissism going on with people so I'm moving in the opposite direction. You just got a great new live action role playing app for your Iphone? Cool. I just got a cheap set of dominoes at the thrift store. You're treating yourself to the new Wii for Christmas? Awesome. I just bought a chess set for a dollar. You're working on your new World Of Warcraft character? Great. I'm going to make my own hafentafl set. My point is, like most of technology as we know it, I think gaming has also essentially reached its peak and has nowhere to go but down, so the time is ripe for the return of classic board, dice and card games.

The second reason for my current obsession with non electrified games is that they have an historical precedent that seems a bit downplayed by many archaeologists and historians. For instance, backgammon is one of the oldest board games known to man, and remnants of ancient backgammon sets have been found all throughout Central Asia, with Iran being host to the oldest known backgammon set (circa 3000 BC). To put it lightly, backgammon is older than dirt, and much like Iggy Pop, The Reverend Horton Heat and the late great Johnny Cash, being old doesn't make it any less cool. And even though ancient artifacts are usually unable to convey emotion, unless we are speaking about artistic rendering which clearly portrays a dramatic, violent or other such intense visage, I still think that antiquated games (even cheapo plastic ones) have a certain elegance about them that video games can't touch.

Games can be put into the same category as other mundane objects such as tools, pottery, weapons, clothing, etc. They usually do not carry any imprint of emotion, except in the case of stylized chess sets or some weird spoon with a really sad looking face carved into the handle or something. Unless you know the history of an ancient or otherwise antiquated object, you can only speculate that the wonderfully powerful looking Samurai sword we're viewing in a museum was once held up by a man named Kimura San who exclaimed “goddamn, Imma open a serious can of whoop ass on Yokozuna with this!” In actuality, ole Kimura might have been presented with the sword by master bladesmith Konishi- Sama and said something more like “goddamn, that dude needs to lay off the sake, this thing's a piece of crap.”

The point is, these old games LOOK like they were really important, and their preponderance in important grave mounds and ruined cities leads me to really want to believe that they held extremely important cultural and even spiritual significance. I like to envision important decisions being made by the glow of candles, with bone carved dice being thrown by bearded men who decided the fate of the civilizations of yore, based on the roll of the dice or the outcome of a chess match. Who knows, maybe they were just created for entertainment value and to combat boredom, but I really hope the conversation went something like “that's right Erik, when I beat your ass in hafentafl, you'll owe me ALL of your estate in Greenland!” and not “goddammit Olaf, I don't have TIME to play that crap, can't you see I'm cleaning that priest's guts off of my boots?”

And the final reason I want to make analog games cool again is because their appeal is literally timeless, and they require very little in the way of resources to be able to play them. You don't need electricity, the internet, lots of money, sobriety, physical fitness, expensive sneakers, lots of room or even all of your fingers to be able to play most of them. Hell, in most instances you can even make your own damn games from easily acquired cheap or free materials.

Analog games serve as a bonding experience for friends and family, and even in the case of my aunt and my cousins (who have all been playing cribbage practically as long as they've been able to walk) they inspire healthy competition and something to do at family outings. Granted, not everyone leaves the kids/ card table in a jovial mood after taunts and jeering, but at the very least, it gets people talking, interacting and doing something. Video games just seem really... I dunno... sterile to me. Sure, they can definitely be fun and create a lot of drama, but I actually miss conversations like “you sided with Jason's army behind my back!? I'll fkin KILL you!” which was brought upon by a cheap game of Risk gone wrong.

Non electrified games have been enjoyed long before we even had a grid and will be enjoyed long after it goes down. You can bet that I'll be pulling my magnetic travel checkers out of my knapsack to decide who'll be milking the goats when I finally purchase my dream homestead, and the only grid I'll need is the one I'm playing “go” on dammit...


-I actually have to take back some of the derogatory comments I made about video games, as I am guilty of playing two semi regularly. One is the PC freeware version of Stratego, and the other is a Bicycle "abandonware" cribbage game (both are easy to find as free downloads). Granted, I'd much rather actually play both of these games with actual, physical game boards and opponents, but that isn't always convenient. So, much like an inflate- a- mate, they serve as the next best thing.

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